Favorite Albums of 2017

It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one. Yet, despite all of the bleakness, there were many good things that occurred. In the realm of music for instance, a wonderfully copious amount of it was created, recorded, and released for all to enjoy, reminding us of both the goodness of humanity and the vitality of the art form.

Below, I have compiled ten of my favorite albums of this past year, which includes classical as well as non-classical releases. Along with a short blurb on each album, I have included one sample track (when available) and links to both iTunes and Amazon. If a particular album piques your interest, I encourage you to support the artists by purchasing their work.

So, in no particular order, here are my ten favorite albums of 2017:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (Hollywood Records)

Although not quite as satisfying as its predecessor (both the original Guardians of the Galaxy film and its accompanying Awesome Mix Vol. 1), this compilation of 60s and 70s pop tunes added a delightful variety of sounds to the quirky summer blockbuster. From well-known songs (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”) to lesser known gems (Sweet’s “Fox on the Run”), this nostalgia-fulled mix was the perfect soundtrack to those long summer road trips.

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Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)

Here are four more neglected classical Christmas works from the twentieth century, which is the second of my two part series. (You can read the first part here.) Without further ado, let’s continue…

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May you be as excited as Will Ferrell this holiday season!

1. Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata (1957)

An American composer and organist who excelled at composing pieces for choir, Daniel Pinkham’s musical language embraced the gamut of twentieth century composition, including both tonal and atonal idioms. His Christmas Cantata, written for choir, organ, and two brass choirs, is perhaps his best-known work.

The piece is divided into three movements – the first opens dramatically, as the choir (singing in Latin) implores the shepherds to tell them what they witnessed at the manger. The music then becomes upbeat and dancelike as the shepherds speak of the marvel of seeing the newborn baby Jesus. (The score here is reminiscent of Stravinsky, full of tricky rhythmic devices and unusual harmonies.)

The second movement is a transcendent setting of the famous Latin text “O Magnum Mysterium,” which recalls the long, flowing melodic lines of Gregorian chant. The third and final movement sets the words of the angels – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). It begins with soft excitement but gradually grows in volume before ending on a splendorous “Alleluia.” Surprisingly, Pinkham manages to pack a ton of musical material into a tight, economic package – all three movements combined are only about ten minutes total.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)”

Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)

There’s a ton of great classical Christmas music and carols out there but to be honest, there’s only so many times that I can hear “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” or the “Hallelujah Chorus” before wanting to kick a Christmas tree over (OK, not really!) Feeling the same way? Well, as the angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid!” In this post (which will be split into two parts), I will bring to light eight lesser-known classical Christmas pieces from the twentieth century, which are sure to provide some variety to your Christmas playlist and help ignite the spirit of the season. Here are the first four:

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Same.

1. John Tavener: Today the Virgin (1989)

Not to be confused with the Renaissance composer John Taverner, the twentieth century English composer John Tavener is often labeled as a “holy minimalist” alongside his contemporaries Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. While the accuracy of that label is debatable, Tavener’s music is, without a doubt, steeped in spirituality. Specifically, his deep love of the Russian Orthodox religion and subsequent conversion in 1977 informed much of his creative output; many of his pieces set texts from the Orthodox liturgy and evoke the sounds of the church’s rich choral tradition (such as his frequent use of static vocal drones). Tavener (who died in 2013) is probably best remembered for his choral piece Song for Athene, which was heard by over two billion people worldwide during the broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

Eight years prior, in 1989, Tavener penned the short a cappella choral work Today the Virgin. The piece is a delightful setting of a text by Mother Thekla, which celebrates the wondrous mystery of Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ. Throughout the piece, a single-note vocal drone resonates underneath the words and the repeated refrain – “Rejoice, O World, with the Angels and the Shepherds, give glory to the Child!” – is punctuated by a melismatic “Alleluia,” which increases in length and joyfulness as the work progresses.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)”